Killing Creativity…Or Not

If you’ve been with us for more than a few posts, you’ll know that one of the main themes of this blog is that creativity is a learned skill (or an unlearned skill, according to Picasso). Spreading this gospel and encouraging creative thinking is a goal that I share with countless designers, academics, and self-help gurus. Unsurprisingly, though, most of our work focuses on easily digested morsels and well-packaged exercises: brainstorming, asking questions, breaking routines, finding the right environment. But what if effectively teaching creativity requires stepping back a bit farther? If you were going to design an educational system that encouraged creative problem solving, for example, what would it look like? Or more to the point, what wouldn’t it look like?

In a deeply insightful and genuinely funny 2006 TED talk, creativity expert Ken Robinson makes a pretty persuasive argument that the system wouldn’t look like the one we have now. An alien visiting earth, he supposes, would look at public education and come to the conclusion that it’s one purpose is to produce university professors. They are the kids who “come out on top” in the current system, after all; who “win all the brownie points and do everything they’re supposed to.” As children grow, Robinson argues, we “progressively educate them from the waist up, focusing on their heads, and slightly to one side.” Academic achievement, in other words, narrowly defined and strictly enforced, is the sole metric by which we determine success. It’s a talk littered with memorable and inspiring quotes. Here’s the one that got the loudest applause: “creativity is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

Sir Robinson’s argument goes beyond standard complaints about teaching to the test or facilitating equal access to education. Instead, he suggests that the entire structure of public education is geared towards producing workers for an industrial workforce and is predicated on a hierarchy of learning with math and science on top and the arts at the bottom. Strong stigmas are associated with any learning not critical for getting a job after school, and the entire k-12 education system ends up functioning as a protracted university enrollment test (click that link, it’s terrifying). Because success within the educational system is defined so narrowly, “a lot of highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they’re good at wasn’t valued in school.”

Robinson’s call to action is a grand one, but persuasive nonetheless. Math is important, of course, and none of us would be here but for the countless innovations and technologies that our relentless pursuit of the scientific frontier has allowed. At the same time, I’m receptive to the idea that the system is imbalanced. After all, no one would argue that all of our students should be dancers, but it might not hurt if our biochemists knew how to dance. In the end, creativity is about divergent thinking and the intersection of ideas. The more diversity we have, and the more we celebrate that diversity, the better off we’ll be.

Watch the talk at TED.com, or check out Robinson’s book “The Element” at Amazon.

Caffeinate to Creativity

It only seems natural to follow up yesterday’s post on grogginess with one on caffeine, picked up from Lifehacker by way of Guy Kawasaki. The buzz is all about an excerpt from Chris Chatham’s book Caffeine: A User’s Guide to Getting Optimally Wired (no word yet on when it gets to Amazon). Given that caffeine is the most widely used and abused stimulant in the world, people perked up a bit when a neuroscientist offered some thoughts on optimal consumption.

The basic story is that consuming 20-200mg/hour delivers the best mental boost. Given that an average cuppa joe contains between 100-150mg of caffeine, one cup (or less) per hour is more than enough. He also notes that to use caffeine effectively, you should play to its (and your own) strengths: caffeine makes it easier to work harder and faster on tasks that you already had under control, but it doesn’t make challenging problems or abstract puzzlers any easier. Building on yesterday’s post, caffeine is going to help with the analytical tasks, but probably not the creative ones. One last interesting finding: mixing in a bit of sugar may actually be a great idea, as some studies have shown that caffeine-glucose cocktails provide cognitive benefits not seen with either one alone.

Of course, caffeine isn’t just about the chemical brain boost. There’s the placebo effect, and the fact that sometimes a morning isn’t going to start itself without a cup of the delicious. Some studies have also suggested that long term ingestion is associated with a variety of health benefits such as a reduction in the risk of Type 2 Diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. As if we needed more motivation.

Scientists and true addicts should check out the Scienceblog excerpt to keep learning.